When Commercial Appeal publisher Joe Pepe took over from predecessor John Wilcox in 2006, he described Memphis' daily newspaper as a business operating in "death mode." Pepe wanted to reverse that trend.
"I want to add people," he said, even though the paper was already deep into the protracted process of legal union busting and steadily reducing its staff through attrition, layoffs, and buyouts. "If we're going to continue to write local, local, local ... [we've] got to have people to do it. We have to fuel our own growth."
But that approach hasn't been the reality. The paper laid off 9 percent of its total workforce in 2008. The CA also laid off 46 more employees last week, including 20 members, or 15 percent, of its editorial department.
In an online address to members of the Memphis Newspaper Guild, union spokesperson Mark Watson announced that Warren Funk, the CA's attorney and chief contract negotiator, rejected any talk of temporary wage cuts. The layoffs that had been announced in February but were subsequently postponed commenced immediately.
The layoffs claimed several of the CA's most recognizable names, including Watson, longtime reporter Jimmie Covington, performing-arts writer Christopher Blank, editorial cartoonist Bill Day, and feature writer Fredric Koeppel, best known for his dining reviews and wine columns.
Rather than growing The Commercial Appeal, which faces the same circulation and advertising challenges as daily papers around the country, Pepe has presided over a period of shrinkage. To cut production costs, the size of the paper was reduced. Its geographic reach shrank last year when the paper ceased home delivery to thousands of households. Guild employees haven't had a raise in five years, and 2009 began with management taking significant pay cuts. Staff reduction has been ongoing since 2004 and, last year, the paper started outsourcing advertising layout jobs to India.
Three days after the most recent staff cuts, a front-page blurb announced the birth of a new column called "My Words." The column will be comprised of reader-submitted material. Last week, The Commercial Appeal also quietly increased the price of its weekday newsstand edition from 50 to 75 cents.
In addition to adding reader-submitted material, the CA will be using shared editorial content created by Nashville's Tennessean, the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, and the Knoxville News Sentinel.